A guide for how to listen to the city
In New Orleans, what qualifies as a “venue” is more osmotic than perhaps any city in America. Walls or stages or any of the typical trappings of classic club aren’t necessary for a place to have regular occurring live music. Streets corners to corner stores to parks to backyards, there are literally hundreds of places to take in the city’s incomparable music scene, but if you’re just starting out exploring, these are the 10 we would be pressed to pick as some of the Big Easy’s best.
1. Preservation Hall: One of the most important music spaces in the country, Preservation Hall remains one of the few places you can regularly witness traditional jazz. Now owned by Ben Jaffe, one of the more familiar faces of the city who also plays tuba in the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, his parents started the hall in 1961 and the setup hasn’t changed much since. Visitors still line up outside and sit on modest wooden benches in a patinaed room. The Hall’s namesake jazz band tours the world and even plays with New Orleans Jazz Fest headliners like Alabama Shakes, Elvis Costello, and Jimmy Buffet for their Midnight Preserves benefit shows. A show at the Hall is worth planning your trip itinerary around, so reserve seats as far ahead in advance as you can. Otherwise, we recommend showing up 45 minutes ahead of time to grab a Hurricane next door at Pat O’Brien’s before you stand in line.
2. The Maple Leaf: A fixture of the Carrollton neighborhood, The Maple Leaf might be a bit of a drive or a long ride on a streetcar, but you would be remiss to let the distance from the Quarter or Downtown prevent you from seeing regular acts like George Porter Jr. or performances by the Rebirth Brass Band. This was also the home bar of James Booker, one of the most important musicians to ever come out of the city. If you haven’t heard of him before, put the documentary Bayou Maharajah in your Netflix cue.
3. d.b.a.: In the Quarter, Frenchmen Street turns into an all-you-can-eat buffet of live music with clubs lining the street for blocks. While it’s difficult to pick one spot to direct you toward, d.b.a. Is not only one the neighborhood’s best bars, it consistently books must-see regional acts from gut-bucket bluesman Little Freddie King to the Treme Brass Band and the only-in-New Orleans, Mardi Gras Indian band Big Chief Monk Boudreaux and the Golden Eagles. Show up early to grab a beer and a seat in the gallery windows, a catbird seat for people watching.
FYI: Brass bands, many times made up of incredibly talented high school students, reguarly set up on the corner of Chartres and Frenchmen just down the block. You would be remiss to not join in on the al fresco, free fun, but make sure to bring some cash for the cardboard box when it gets passed around.
4. Tipitina’s: Built by a group of fans as a space for pianist Henry Roeland Byrd a.k.a Professor Longhair to perform, Tipitina’s is as important of a site for New Orleans history as it is a place to see some of the city’s best artists. Professor Longhair, or Fess as he’s also known, influenced people like Dr. John, Aaron Neville, and Allen Toussaint while writing some of the city’s most iconic songs like “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” and “Big Chief.”
5. Mother-in-Law Lounge: This is no hole in the wall. With blaringly colorful murals and iconography painted all over the exterior, there is no searching for this venue. Although not the same since it transferred ownership from Ernie K. Doe who wrote the 1960 hit “Mother In Law” to Kermit Ruffins, it still provides an only-in-New Orleans experience. While Ruffins and his Barbecue Slingers perform on the tiny stage behind the bar, cooks come into the crowd to take orders for hot plates prepared on the smoker out back. They also hold regular crawfish boils on Fridays during the spring and summer. You’ll soon be saying the phrase “Music lovers! All aboard” in all applicable situations.
6. Gasa Gasa: Showcasing the other side of New Orleans’ music scene, Gasa Gasa hosts smaller local and national indie acts you may have heard of if you’re a fan of NPR’s Tiny Desk series along with experimental visual artists sans the intimidating, unwelcoming vibe.
7. Hi Ho Lounge: Down the street from one of our favorite daiquiri spots, Gene’s, this spot that straddles St. Roch and the Marigny gets crowded (in a good way) on Saturday nights when DJ Soul Sister spins soul, R&B, funk, disco, and hip hop classics.
8. Saenger Theater: One of the few remaining historic Saenger movie palace properties in America, this resplendently restored theater downtown on Canal Street hosts Broadway shows and nationally touring artists from comedians like Chris Rock to musicians like Bonnie Raitt. You can also hear the theater’s 2,000 pipe organ before select performances.
9. Civic Theater: Recently renovated, this three balcony theater is the oldest in the city with bright white-painted Beaux Arts architectural details. The cocktail program developed by Neal Bodenheimer of the acclaimed bar Cure guarantees you won’t have a watery, headache-inducing drink during intermission.
10. Joy Theater: Across the street from the Seanger, the Joy Theater’s technicolor, flashing marquee fittingly greets you with simply the world “JOY” as you exit I-10 into the city. The art-deco relic hosts just as many film events as it does musical acts.